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West European Welfare States

West European Welfare States

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Published by Erik F. Meinhardt
Elinor Scarbrough’s article, Western European welfare states: The old politics of retrenchment, attempts to rebut Pierson’s argument. She discusses what she thinks is Pierson’s major flaw: his claim that welfare state retrenchment politics cannot be explained at all in terms of original welfare state expansion. Scarbrough argues the opposite instead, claiming that scaling back the welfare state is difficult on account of much of the same pressures that led to the emergence of welfare states.” She focuses first on welfare state theories, then on empirical evidence about the political forces involved in welfare state policymaking. She summarizes it best on page 227: “The common thrust of the arguments is that the constellation of societal problems and political forces that shaped the fundamentals and expansion of welfare states also shape the politics of retrenchment, putting radical reform beyond the grasp of governments.”
Elinor Scarbrough’s article, Western European welfare states: The old politics of retrenchment, attempts to rebut Pierson’s argument. She discusses what she thinks is Pierson’s major flaw: his claim that welfare state retrenchment politics cannot be explained at all in terms of original welfare state expansion. Scarbrough argues the opposite instead, claiming that scaling back the welfare state is difficult on account of much of the same pressures that led to the emergence of welfare states.” She focuses first on welfare state theories, then on empirical evidence about the political forces involved in welfare state policymaking. She summarizes it best on page 227: “The common thrust of the arguments is that the constellation of societal problems and political forces that shaped the fundamentals and expansion of welfare states also shape the politics of retrenchment, putting radical reform beyond the grasp of governments.”

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Published by: Erik F. Meinhardt on Jun 03, 2007
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Introduction
In a series of papers, political scientist Paul Pierson sought to answer the question ofwhy welfare states remain so resilient in the face of retrenchment efforts, that is, whybig-spending almost socialist welfare states of Western Europe remain so strong despiteattempts within their governments to cut spending on social programs. His answerpointed to blame avoidance among politicians: if politicians make welfare state reformsthey run the risk of not being reelected due to the tremendous unpopularity of cutbackson social programs.Elinor Scarbrough’s article,
Western European welfare states: The old politics of retrenchment
,attempts to rebut Pierson’s argument. She discusses what she thinks is Pierson’s majorflaw: his claim that welfare state retrenchment politics cannot be explained at all interms of original welfare state expansion. Scarbrough argues the opposite instead,claiming that scaling back the welfare state is difficult on account of much of the samepressures that led to the emergence of welfare states.” She focuses first on welfare statetheories, then on empirical evidence about the political forces involved in welfare statepolicymaking. She summarizes it best on page 227: “The common thrust of thearguments is that the constellation of societal problems and political forces that shapedthe fundamentals and expansion of welfare states also shape the politics ofretrenchment, putting radical reform beyond the grasp of governments.”
Theories of the Welfare State
All three of the following theories point to the reasons why welfare states exist, that is,why government intervention in the condition of its people ever even arose. Scarbroughthen takes contemporary developments in society and compares them to these theories.They are the logic of industrialism, the crisis of capitalism, and nation building.1. Logic of IndustrialismThis perspective suggests that the welfare state is both necessary and possible as aresult of industrialization.First, the industrialism theory claims that the welfare state exists because it is necessary.With mass industrialization after the Industrial Revolution came mass urbanization,individual and family mobility, the individualization of households, and dependenceon wage labor. These factors caused a change in traditional social institutions and leftonly those in the labor force successful – as the family, churches and guilds as socialinstitutions were no longer able to meet welfare needs, this meant that the young,unemployed, sick and disabled and elderly needed protection. Thus, the welfare stateemerged to replace those archaic social institutions. In addition to this, the theory claimsthat the welfare state is possible as a result of industrialization. Industrialization after
 
the Industrial Revolution generated an economic surplus for use by the government inadvancing societal wellbeing and government efficiency.Pierson argued that the reasons for the emergence of the welfare state have nothing todo with the politics of retrenchment. But as Scarbrough points out, the situation inWestern Europe from the viewpoint of the logic of industrialism theory is no differentnow that it was when the welfare state emerged.Western Europe is highly urbanized and is predicted to become even more highlyurbanized. Urbanization has grown from in Western Europe 1975-1995 and is projectedto grow at a higher rate through 2015. One-quarter to one-third of populations of theEuropean Union live in large urban concentrations. Also, many urban areas innorthwest Europe are losing population which is not compensated for by suburbangrowth, leading to urban decay and typical inner-city problems. The populations leftbehind typically face the problems of poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. Thesetrends perpetuate the need for welfare states.The “second demographic transition” away from the typical family social structurewhich has been occurring since the 1960’s also perpetuates this need. Household sizesare declining and single-person households are rising. Divorce rates and cohabitationrates are rising, as is the number of single-parent households and lifetime childlessness.Three-generation households are no longer the norm as people live longer lives andliving standards increase—this explains the population of elderly people living alone. Inaddition to three-generation households, childcare is affected by the widespread andrising entry of women into the labor market.The dependence on wage labor has also perpetuated the need for welfare states.Unemployment in Western Europe from the 1970’s has risen inexorably whichcontributed to large public spending in the 80’s and 90’s. Dynamic, flexible, high-technology economies of today are accompanied by rising part-time and temporaryemployment. Also, these economies offer little social protection to and cause long-termunemployment of low-skilled workers. The growth of outsourcing, franchising, andworking-at-home similarly leaves workers unprotected. Also, for 50% of those inWestern Europe who lose full-time jobs, they will re-enter the workforce in a part-time job, denoting a shift from good to bad jobs.Some argue that retrenchment is the only option available to Western European welfarestates because the costs of programs are no longer affordable and big government is nolonger manageable. However, as Scarbrough points out, Western European welfarestates are still possible by the view of the logic of industrialism argument. WesternEuropean economies have grown overall and year-to-year since the 1980’s.Retrenchment efforts, therefore, cannot be rooted in failing national prosperity.
 
Some counter-claim that citizens of Western Europe have become averse to hightaxation rates and their shift to more moderate rates is what explains their economicgrowth. However, Scarbrough shows through polls that there is an overall support forthe redistributive and service activities of welfare states. Most in Western Europeactually support extending expenditures on welfare services and desire progressivetaxation and the reduction of income differences.Others counter-claim that big government is unmanageable and point to instances ofbudgetary constraint and administrative reorganization among welfare states.However, these shifts just represent a change from centralized government to morelocalized administration of welfare activities and oversight.2. Contradictions of CapitalismThis theory suggests that welfare states originated in efforts to mediate the inherentcontradictions of capitalism and democracy; to ensure favorable conditions for capitalformation and protect society from class conflicts caused by that formation.Unemployment in Western Europe runs rampant, averaging 11 percent in the mid-1990’s. Retrenchment is advocated to reinvigorate the economic growth necessary toreduce that unemployment. However, it is governments which are responsible forfueling that growth by delivering the appropriate economic environment (labor withappropriate skills, fiscal policies ensuring work incentives, appropriate regulatoryinstitutions) and for absorbing externalities (regulation of social order, public policies tooffset the social costs of industrial restructuring, raising levels of human capital). Thissuggests that more government involvement is necessary, not retrenchment.Even after imposing market economies in Europe in the post-Soviet Era, there wasmuch instability, fear of economic depression and then a call for regulation of financialmarkets following economic crises of 82, 87, 94-95, 97-98. Action agreed between the G7governments staved off economic collapse following these economic crises, whichtestifies to the fact that markets cannot sustain viability in the long-term.On the question of globalization, some argue that increased internationalization of tradeand investment limits government’s ability to intervene in national economies for socialpurposes and forces them to favor big business rather than social welfare. However,Scarbrough counters that globalization is a historically recurring and temporaryphenomenon. She begs us to look at the inter-war period which resulted in economiccollapse because of the market, and then a return to a welfare state. Also, she points outthat if a government’s social policy secures free trade to make society more prosperous,then that government is just as interventionist as during welfare expansion. Welfareexpansion, as this crisis/contradiction of capitalism theory points out, emphasizes theimportance of the government as managing conflicting interests between capital andlabor which mark retrenchment objectives.

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